Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- The question marks are there.

They are sprinkled throughout the Albany State football team as it inches toward the 2011 season -- a year where the Rams will be defending the SBN National Black College Football Championship and SIAC crown.

And how will the team handle a slew of unknowns, including a new offensive coordinator, a depleted offensive line, an inexperienced group of linebackers and a tougher schedule?

ASU coach Mike White said Friday that it will happen, but only with hard work -- and no excuses.

"The 2011 season will have a lot of question marks and a lot of new faces," White said during the 12th annual Quarterback Club Kickoff Football Reception at Eula Lovett Hall. "But be sure of one thing: As Albany State Golden Rams, we will battle as hard as we can, and we will leave it on the field. Every time, we are going to leave it out there. Every thing we got will stay on the field. And that's what we have always been about."

White and his assistant coaches fielded questions from fans, alumni and the media during Friday's reception. And throughout all the concerns that were raised, White and his coaching staff kept coming back to one answer.

No excuses.

"You expect us to have a good team this year," White said to the throngs of supporters. "That's what you expect from us. That's why you are all here. You won't hear any (darn) excuses."

With brand new SBN National Championship rings snug on their fingers and the support of a room full of fans who have watched Albany State rise to the top of the HBCU world, White and his assistant coaches spoke about an upcoming season full of expectations.

ASU opened up last year with 11 straight wins and made it to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II playoffs before losing to Delta State University. But if the Rams plan to put together another historic season, they must address the numerous issues raised during Friday's reception.

Among those questions posed to the ASU coaching staff were:

*** How will the offensive line move forward without two Preseason All-SIAC First Team offensive linemen -- Norris Byrd and captain Mike Mavromichalis -- who were recently ruled academically ineligible for the season?

*** How good will the linebackers be with no returning starters at that position?

*** How will the offense respond to new offensive coordinator Uyl Joyner, who wasn't officially given the job until this week -- less than six weeks before the Rams' first game?

But Friday's question-and-answer session wasn't all about concerns for a team that was picked to win the SIAC title during Wednesday's SIAC Kick-Off Luncheon in Atlanta. Star quarterback and reigning SIAC MVP Stanley Jennings will be back under center along with his flock of offensive weapons, and the defensive-minded White will no doubt have the Rams ready to go on the other side of the ball.

Here are some of the highlights from Friday's two-hour session:

Jennings can score with his feet. He showed that mobility outside of the pocket last year with his 397 yards of positive rushing yardage and two touchdowns. Can Rams fans expect much of the same from the electric quarterback?

Joyner said: "Teams are going to scheme to stop your strength. Teams are going to (try to stop keep him in the pocket). They aren't slamming anything, because if you do that and let him out, that's where he is most dangerous. That's what they are going to try to do, keep him in the pocket."

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Jennings had such a great season last year, throwing for 2,392 yards and 26 touchdowns. What has he been working on in the offseason?

Joyner said: "The biggest thing that stuck out watching Stanley is that Stanley leans a lot when he throws and is kind of pushing his weight forward on the throw. That tends to make a lot of balls come up short. That is the biggest thing that we addressed this summer. To get him to get his 250 pounds behind the ball, and you will see a lot of crisp passes and him putting a little more touch on some balls. That is the one thing we are trying to hammer home with him now."

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Last year, Jennings made a "guarantee" midway through the season that the Rams wouldn't lose another game the rest of the regular season -- which came true. Do Rams coaches expect any more bold predictions this season?

Joyner said with a laugh: "We hope not. We are still trying to get through ones from last year. I don't even bring that up in his presence."

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How have the players and coaches handled the success from last season when the Rams went 11-1, won the SIAC and were named SBN National Black College Football Champions for the first time?

White said: "You see the ring that the coaches have on. It's the championship ring that we won this year. And, boy, it went to our heads, bad. We had really struggled as far as working out. We used to be really smooth with our training in the offseason. It was really a struggle this year."

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What's going to be the strength of ASU's offense?

Joyner said: "We have a lot of playmakers. We have about eight guys who make plays, and the problem comes in when you just have one ball. That's the biggest problem we have. If you can just change the game up and get two balls out there. The other problem is that we are looking for offensive line help."

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With offensive linemen Byrd and captain Mavromichalis being ruled academically ineligible for the entire season, how much does that hurt the team?

Joyner said: "We are going to miss those guys. We really wish we could have them, but we don't want to put too much into talking about them right now. We have to move on. You have been telling us, 'No excuses,' and we aren't going to make any excuses about the guys. We may have slipped up as far as being on those guys, but we really have to clean the milk up. You can't cry over it now. Just wipe it up and keep moving."

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Opponents know ASU has weapons in receivers Octavius Staton (518 yards, 6 TD last year) and Orion Ponder (380 yards, 1 TD), but what can fans expect out of the running back position? (The only returning back is Kareem Hess, who had 200 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns last season).

Running backs coach Kenyan Conner said: "Here at Albany State we want guys to be consistent and to be able to run in between the tackles and run hard. We also want guys to be able to get outside and get into the open field and make guys miss. The only running back we have coming back right now is Kareem Hess, so we know he is a good zone runner and a good cut-back slash runner. He is always good between tackles and is tough, and we are looking for guys to match his toughness. We are going to set the tone with Kareem."

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ASU returns no linebackers from last year. What are the Rams going to be looking for out of prospective linebackers who are competing for those starting positions?

Linebackers coach Rickey Alexander said: "Linebackers need to be physical. We are looking for guys who can tackle well and pick up the system. That's going to determine who will play, probably. At linebacker, we want guys who can come up and put a lick on guys. Guys who can tackle well and hit well, that's what we expect from the linebacker position."

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Does the defensive line feel any extra pressure to stop the run with the inexperienced linebackers behind them?

Defensive line coach Bokowski Daniels said: "(Stopping the run) is the mentality of the defensive line anyway, because you are the first line of defense against the run. So the pressure doesn't change. You have to be the backbone of the defense. Whether you have linebackers behind you who have played for five years, it doesn't matter. It has to be your mindset."

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Everybody knows the success ASU has had on the field, but what are the coaches trying to do off the field with the players to ensure success beyond football?

White said: "We are in a battle with our guys. We are in a battle with them constantly about being men and growing up. In the big picture, we have pretty rings and some nice trophies. But they will catch dust, and they will be falling apart in another year or two. But it's about them becoming men, taking responsibility and understanding what is important ... Not only do we want to win the game on the field, we want to win the game of life with these kids."